In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When Mariah Carey won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, she didn’t look remotely surprised. The slate of nominees in early 1991 was, as far as these things go, fairly strong. Carey was up against Wilson Phillips, Lisa Stansfield, the Black Crowes, and the Kentucky Headhunters. But Carey’s victory was a fait accompli, a formality. Giving her acceptance speech, Carey was relaxed and businesslike: “I’m just really thankful, and huh! That’s it!”
Carey was never going to lose that award. In 1991, the music business needed Mariah Carey. The previous year, the Grammys had given Best New Artist to Milli Vanilli. A few months later, when the world learned that Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus hadn’t sung a note on Milli Vanilli’s album, the entire business went into a frantic shame-spiral. So Mariah Carey came along at the exact right moment. She was young and beautiful and hugely popular, and all those things had been true about Milli Vanilli, too. But Carey also had an absurd once-in-a-generation voice, and she wasn’t shy about showing it off. Emerging when she did, Mariah Carey became a new figurehead for the whole industry, moving both pop and R&B toward the showy vocal theatrics that would dominate the next decade and immediately establishing herself as a supernova-level star.
Carey’s self-titled debut album was already triple platinum on Grammy night, and her first two singles, “Vision Of Love” and “Love Takes Time,” had already reached #1. Given all of that, it’s almost a surprise that the Grammys didn’t hand Carey all four major awards right away, giving her the same sweep that Christopher Cross had gotten years before and that Billie Eilish would get years later. Carey was nominated for all four major awards, but she lost the other ones to Phil Collins and Quincy Jones and Bette Midler’s “From A Distance” — choices that must’ve seemed safe in the moment and that now look utterly deranged. (“From A Distance” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.)
But Mariah Carey’s star was still ascendant. A few weeks before Grammy night, the Mariah Carey LP finally climbed to the top of the Billboard album charts. For the entire second half of 1990, two pop-rap blockbusters had utterly dominated those album charts. From July to February, nothing was getting past MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme. In the first week of February, though, Mariah Carey knocked To The Extreme out of the #1 spot. Carey’s album held that #1 spot for 15 weeks. (The album that finally kicked Carey out of the top spot was R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. The album charts in the era just before SoundScan are beautifully weird.) So those Grammy Awards came in the middle of a seriously dominant run. A few weeks later, Carey’s third single became her third #1 hit.
Carey co-wrote “Someday” with Ben Margulies, the guy who owned the studio where she recorded her first demos and who also co-wrote “Vision Of Love” and “Love Takes Time.” (After that first album, Carey and Margulies fell out. This will be Margulies’ last time in this column, though he’s stuck around in the music business ever since.) The two of of them assembled “Someday” in the studio, with Carey improvising melodies and lyrics. Margulies had put together a sleek, percussive beat. While Margulies tinkered with the beat, Carey came up with all sorts of melodic hooks, then put them to lyrics and figured out how to fit them all together. That’s basically the same writing method that a whole lot of rappers use today. In 1988, when Carey and Margulies came up with “Someday,” that must’ve been a pretty novel approach; programmed beats, after all, were still a relatively new development.
Tommy Mottola famously signed Mariah Carey after he grabbed her demo tape at a party. “Someday” was one of the four songs on that demo tape, which means it’s one of the songs that convinced Mottola to sign Carey. When Carey recorded the album version of “Someday,” she worked with Ric Wake, a producer who’d helped develop Taylor Dayne into a star. (Wake produced Dayne’s sole #1 hit “Love Will Lead You Back.”) Wake based the final version of the song on the demo that Carey and Ben Margulies had made, but Carey later admitted that she wasn’t too fond of some of his embellishments. In the liner notes of her 2015 compilation #1 To Infinity, Carey wrote that she wishes she could “delete some of the overproduction.” She’s apparently especially annoyed about the guitar solo that Wake added. She’s right. That guitar solo is butt.
But even with that mercifully brief guitar solo, “Someday” is still a sleek and energetic jam. Carey’s early singles were mostly ballads, but over the whole course of her career, Carey’s biggest and best songs have mostly been her dance-pop bangers. So maybe “Someday” served as some kind of blueprint for what she’d do later on. It’s easy enough to understand why Columbia wanted to focus most of the attention on Carey’s ballads. They wanted to show off her voice, and ballads are the obvious way to do that. In its own way, though, “Someday” is an even better showcase for what Mariah Carey could do.
“Someday” is funky. That matters. The track has a quick, spartan groove. The busily syncopated drum machines and the blurpy synth-bass lock in together, while the keyboards add little disco string-shiver accents. It’s a bubbly beat, but it’s an unforgiving one. Carey stays right in the pocket, and she keeps coming up with sticky little hooks. She sings with an effortless gale-force fluidity.
The part of “Someday” that everyone remembers is the crazy window-shattering whistle-note that Carey hits at the very end of the track. For me, though, the highlight is the bridge, where Carey locks into a breathless and rhythmic lower-register quick-tongue cadence: “Maybe now, you just can’t conceive/ That there’ll never come a time when you’re cold and lone-lee.” I don’t know if Bone Thugs-N-Harmony — future Mariah Carey collaborators and future Number Ones subjects — took their flow from the “Someday” bridge, but I’m pretty sure they were at least paying attention.
Carey’s “Someday” lyrics don’t look like much on paper — her lyrics never do — but I like the song’s general vibe. Carey sings “Someday” from the perspective of someone’s who’s just been dumped and who doesn’t seem to mind at all. She’s fully confident that this chump will feel like an idiot soon, and she can’t wait to rub it in this person’s face. That’s classic pop-song subject matter, and most of the songs that fit that description are at least a little bit angry or dejected. Mariah Carey just sounds ebullient. She’s done with this joker, and she’s ready to level up.
As that great bridge wraps up, you can hear how much Carey is feeling herself: “You’re thinking ’bout how you might be coming back to hold me/ Just think again because I won’t need your love anymore.” She stretches out the last syllable of “anymore” and turns it into a giddy kind of war-whoop. Like a lot of other Mariah Carey songs, “Someday” presents itself as a song about a relationship, but it’s more an ode to how strong and cool and resilient and sexy Mariah Carey is. I like that.
Carey planned out the “Someday” video with director Larry Jordan, and it shows her in a school, surrounded by dancing kids. There’s one girl who’s supposed to represent Carey’s younger self, and there’s a boy who’s ignoring her. That’s the concept, anyway. In practice, the video is mostly about cute little kids doing the running man. I’m into that, but Mariah Carey is not. In a clip recorded in 2015, Carey says this about the “Someday video: “Ucch, I hate it, I have no words. I would keep some of the close-ups, and that’s it. Everything else, I don’t know what they were thinking. I don’t know why they were allowing this tomfoolery to occur.” (She says this in a walk-in closet? And she can’t wait to get out of there?) Maybe Mariah Carey just doesn’t like being upstaged by little kids.
When she put together her #1s To Infinity compilation album, Carey didn’t include the studio version of “Someday” that actually hit #1. Instead, she used the version from her 1992 MTV Unplugged special, which she seems to prefer. I like that version of the song. For that one, Carey uses the bridge as an intro, gives her backup singers a lot of space to shine, and hits that final whistle-note howl like it’s nothing. But I prefer the muscular drum-machine simplicity of the actual record.
In any case, “Someday” was just Mariah Carey warming up. We’ll see a whole lot more of her in this column, and we won’t have to wait long before her next appearance.
BONUS BEATS: The “Someday” 12″ single has a bunch of remixes from Madonna’s “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone. For my money, the best of those remixes is the “Pianoapercaloopapella” mix, which puts Carey’s vocals over house-music pianos and absolutely nothing else. Here it is: